Spend any amount of time reading the VW forums or Vanagon Facebook groups and you start to get the feeling that Vanagons are always breaking down. Naturally as most of the posts on these groups are questions posed by van owners who are solving problems, there is a built-in tendency for the majority of posts to be about problems.
Anyway, it would be easy to come away with the impression that Vanagon ownership is a constant state of frustration and repairs. Maybe for some people it is. For us the pleasure we have gotten out of our Vanagon is way greater than the frustration.
VW Camper Cost of Ownership
We are going on four years of ownership and it has not been without incident. We’ve done our share of driveway repairs and maintenance but our van has never (knock on wood!) left us stranded. So with that being said, I want to note here what kind of work we’ve had to do on our Vanagon to keep it on the road since purchasing it.
I should note here also that before buying the Vanagon I had only ever done the most basic of auto maintenance on my own: the occasional oil change changing wiper blades and I had one brake pad replacement on my Subary under my belt.
Fast forward to several years of Vanagon ownership and many many hours of YouTube videos watched, I feel like a much more competent mechanic.
Vanagons can be relatively affordable, reliable and fun to drive but it really, really helps if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and learn how to do some repairs on your own.
Purchase Price of Vanagon
Of course, the initial condition of your Vanagon really matters here. So for full disclosure and frame of reference, we paid $15k for our completely rust-free Vanagon (with an original but great condition engine) here on the East Coast. It’s worth mentioning that rust-free vans in the north east are difficult to find.
After looking at dozens and dozens of vans and doing a ton of research I was sure I could have bought a van of similar quality for $10-12k. (Then again, I could also have just gotten lucky and driven by one for sale in someone’s yard for $5k.)
But after 18+ months of looking and making a few offers in that price range on vans within a 100-mile radius or so (and got way outbid on all of them), I figured I was paying a $3k premium in order to not spend another summer without the Vanagon. (You can read all the details about how we decided on our particular van at Buying our Vanagon.)
So our initial quality was very good with the high price tag that goes with it. This was by design. I have two young kids and wanted to spend my summers camping with my family in the Vanagon, not laying underneath it in the driveway making fixes. So yes, buying a less expensive van that needs work is totally an option for some folks but it didn’t fit with our priorities.
Typical Repairs and Maintenance on a Volkswagen Vanagon Camper
I’ve tried to break up these expenses into necessary repairs/maintenance and option cosmetic work we’ve done. I don’t include the cosmetic/optional work in the total cost of ownership figures but I’ve included a spreadsheet that totals up all of these costs down at the bottom of the page.
When we bought our Volkswagen Vanagon, we picked it up from Kevin Mayer’s garage in Philly. I found Kevin on Roadhaus and he inspected the van before I made an offer on it. Kevin took care of some basic maintenance before we picked it up.
- Cooling system flush
- Brake fluid flush
- New break pads and resurface front rotors, new rear brake shoes/rear cylinders
- oil change
- repair speedometer (sent to outside shop, $120)
- shifter pivot/adjust shifter
These pre-delivery repair/maintenance costs totaled: $864
In addition to these maintenance/repair issues, we also had some cosmetic work done that was pretty expensive but it was worth it in the long run as we had new window seals installed all around and larger GoWesty wheels+tires installed. Neither of these were required repairs/maintenance but I’m glad we had that work done by a good mechanic.
Total “optional/cosmetic” costs: $1,800
By the time I’d driven the car 60 miles home from Philadelphia, the speedometer cable snapped, so I had to replace it. This was my first “job” on the vanagon. It was harder than I thought it was going to be, but I did it and it was great way to dip my toe into the vanagon repairs. That fact that it was successful also helped to keep me motivated on subsequent repairs. $25
Also, trying to be a responsible dad, I performed a few safety-related upgrades:
- Installed third-brake light from GoWesty: $35
- Installed three point seat belts in rear of van on both passenger and driver sides ($210)
My fuel pump was whining and it was really annoying so I put in a new fuel filter in front of it. It didn’t solve the problem. I suspected the tank was just gummed up but none of the mechanics I spoke with thought it was a big deal. $16
Also, at this point I upgraded the stock radio and front speakers. I don’t have the costs on this but really need to document the process because I kept the old speaker grills on the doors and a lot of folks have commented to me how they like that. I will write that up someday soon. Still, as this wasn’t a needed repair to keep the van on the road I don’t think the cost information here is critical.
My van was having a tough time starting every once in a while. It seemed kind of random. I called Ken Wilford at Vanagain and explained what was going on. He suggested a temp2 sensor for $18 and coached me through installing it via email. Ken is truly one of the great people of the Vanagon community and I love how much he encourages and inspires owners to maintain their Vanagons on their own.
Also at this time, I cleaned all of the grounds. This didn’t cost anything and didn’t do anything as far as I could tell, but it seems like a Vanagon owner’s right of passage and it helped me learn a lot about the van’s electrical system.
I went out to start the Vanagon up after it sat for a lot of the winter and notice I smelled gas. A fuel line connected to one of the fuel injectors had developed a small crack. These were not the original fuel lines and they’d been inspected before we picked up the van so, you really want to keep an eye on these and change them out if they are more than a few years old. I replaced all of the fuel lines on the van and fuel injector seals $70. This is a GREAT way to learn about the fuel delivery system on the Vanagon and is a very easy job to do.
Our corduroy upholstery was shot. It didn’t keep us from using the van but over the winter I convinced myself that it would be worth spending the money on good fabric from Sewfine and doing the job myself. I’ve documented my Vanagon Upholstery Project, you can read about it here. The van looks awesome now. Thanks Sewfine! Labor + Materials: $900
Tired of the whining fuel pump, I tried blowing some compressed air into the fuel tank to clear out whatever was clogging it and installing a new fuel pump ($200 for pump and parts). This had limited effect and frankly the original fuel pump was quieter than the replacement.
The engine sounded weird and was losing power. I replaced the plugs, wires and distributor cap ($100). Fixed! And so much more power! This seemed like a big job but doing it step by step made it easy and I really learned a lot about the vanagon doing this.
Replace the three belts (power steering, alternator, AC) on the engine. Super easy to do, and a necessary maintenance item before our long summer road trip. $24.
I picked up a pair of old VW bus jalousie windows in OK shape for $100 and Kevin Mayer installed them for me for $250. Cheaper than air conditioning repair and it’s way nicer to sleep in the van on warm nights now. You can read about the install process over here.
My front wheelwells smelled like gas whenever I filled up and I was really getting tired of my whining fuel pump that I suspected was due to a clogged fuel tank. I knew the answer was to replace and reseal the fuel tank. After a lot of research (you can view my notes here) I decided to give it a go on my own.
This was by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done on the Vanagon ever. I did it on my own, I’m not even sure how a second set of hand would have helped. It was a BEAR of a job but I’m glad I did it.
I should note that I did it in the driveway on the day of my son’s birthday party. So I was baking and icing birthday cake as I did this install. Which was good as this meant I had to take breaks while doing the repair job. Taking breaks is a KEY part of replacing the vanagon fuel tank and it will help you from losing your mind!
The previous summer on our way up to Maine, the vanagon had developed a small but shockingly loud exhaust leak where the exhaust pairs up with the engine head on the first cylinder. I used some of that exhaust repair putty on it and it held up amazingly well and really helped to keep the engine quiet over the summer.
But over the winter my vanagon’s exhaust had been getting progressively more obnoxious and I figured it was time to seek some professional help as replacing the exhaust system seemed a bit out of my depth. I brought the van over to Lou Hodi at Hodi’s Auto Service (someone on the NJ VW Facebook group recommended him). Good thing too as it turned out I didn’t need a whole new exhaust (despite all of the rust!) just new gaskets at the header.
Also, while the van was on the lift the mechanic discovered a torn CV boot (which explained the slight vibration I was experience when accelerating). I asked him to fix it while he had it as CV joints are a notoriously messy undertaking. Lou did a great job and is a super nice guy. The exhaust repair + CV joint replacement + brake fluid flush was $850.
Now the van accelerates smoothly and is as quiet as a Tesla. Ok, not really. But it’s super quiet.
Annual repair/maintence costs for Volkswagen Vanagon Camper
In addition to the work above, I do my own oil changes on the Vanagon. This takes me just minutes to do now and I look at the oil changes as a great opportunity to get under the van and see if anything looks odd. I have Shell Rotella T 15w 40 setup on Amazon Subscribe and Save every few months and bulk order my filters from Bus Depot. I’m guessing I spend about $50-100/year for oil changes depending on how much we drive.
So in just over three years of Vanagon ownership, to keep the van on the road I’ve spent:
- $1,173 on parts for work that I’ve done myself
- $1,700 on parts/labor that I’ve paid garages to do
That works out to about $75/month or just over $900 per year not including gas or optional/cosmetic fixes. That being said, In 2016 I only spent $325 so it’s not an easily predictable figure. Now, if I can get through this year without any major repairs/expenses it would come down to $700/year.
There are countless ways to argue that this is way too much money to spend on an old van. There are also countless ways to argue that we’re getting off lucky and that this is a drop in the bucket compared to what we were spending on hotels and renting lake houses and such before we got the Vanagon.
That, and I admit that I have been really fortunate to have had only great experiences with VW mechanics. From Kevin Mayer to Ken Wilford and most recently Lou Hodi, I’ve never felt like I’ve been taken advantage of and always felt like I was getting a fair deal. Not everyone will have had the same experiences as us.
Here’s the spreadsheet breakdown: